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Lt. gov.’s job could be cut

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By Jay Miller

SANTA FE — Are lieutenant governors really necessary? State Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, a Democratic candidate for the position, notes that the job description isn’t very interesting.

Preside over the Senate, break tie votes and stand in when the governor is out of state, the senator said, adding that one should not dare do anything serious. Just stay ceremonial, he says.

Ortiz y Pino, 67, says for himself, it would be the capstone of his career, which he would use to advocate for New Mexico’s families. “I’m not running for governor in eight years,” he said.

His implication is that the other seven Republican and Democrat candidates are doing just that. He’s likely not far from wrong and may be spot on.

So why else would anyone want to run for lieutenant governor? Contrary to what we hear the candidates say, they aren’t going to be part of a team helping achieve the governor’s goals.

Newspaper endorsements of lieutenant governor candidates use the same kind of language, assuming there is something the lieutenant governor can do.

Actually the lieutenant governor was never intended to do anything other than the constitutional duties that Ortiz y Pino enumerated. It isn’t difficult to preside over the Senate. Just follow the Senate rules of order.

Presiding over the Senate doesn’t confer the same powers as speaker of the House, who appoints committees and decides where bills get referred. Senate leadership does that itself.

As far as taking over for the governor when he is gone, that is technically correct but it really is the governor’s top staff who perform that duty. Sometimes Gov. Bill Richardson or his staff has neglected to tell Lt. Gov. Diane Denish when he is going to be out of town.

It made the papers in a big way when a major problem occurred while former Gov. Bruce King was out of town. Lt. Gov. Casey Luna called the governor’s staff to tell them how he wanted it handled and was told they already had taken care of it.

So why does the lieutenant governor have no duties? It was never intended. Forty years ago a lieutenant governor needed a job so he convinced the Legislature and governor to make the office full-time on an optional basis.

And it has been a problem ever since. Governors have a large staff and dozens of departments and agencies to handle every aspect of state government. There is nothing left for a lieutenant governor to do.

And who would a governor want handling an important job, a trusted assistant he has hired and can fire at any time or a lieutenant governor with his/her own political aspirations?

That essentially means that the lieutenant governor will never be a part of the inner circle. Those spots belong to people hand picked by the governor who owes their jobs to him.

Examples abound of lieutenant governors not taking actions designed to help the governor accomplish his goals. In the 2009 Legislature, Lt. Gov. Denish signed a bill in the absence of the governor, which she knew he would have vetoed. She was within her right to do it but the governor was furious.

In 1990, the Senate rigged a tie vote on the appropriation bill so Lt. Gov. Jack Stahl would have to break a tie. Gov. Garrey Carruthers had pushed the bill hard. Stahl made a statement saying he knew senators wanted to put him in an awkward position but he took pleasure in voting no.

It was the final minutes of the legislative session so the action immediately necessitated a special session because the one item a legislature must pass is the general appropriations act.

Few governor-lieutenant governor tandems have gone well. In 1994, Gov. Bruce King had to run against both of the lieutenant governors who had served him.

The best two relationships occurred when Lt. Govs. Bob Ferguson and Jack Stahl stayed home to run their businesses.

E-mail Jay Miller at insidethecapitol@hotmail.com.